3D Printed Extreme Drones

This 3DPrint.com article was forwarded to me the other day. It’s about a Chinese Antarctic research team that brought along with them a 3D printed drone to help them collect data on the landscapes they were exploring in the frozen wasteland that exists at the bottom of our planet. The article itself is awesome, and talks about how the entire drone was designed in a month and took 15 days to print.

Meanwhile, Professor Liang Jianhong, one of the lead figures in the expedition, told 3DPrint.com how it would take three months to just make a set of molds for carbon fiber parts and cost twenty times more to produce them in carbon fiber than in 3D printing, so it goes to show the huge benefits in cost and time savings that 3D printing can give to development teams.

With that being said, there is a drawback to using a 3D printer for producing a functional part that requires both strength and lightness: relatively speaking, plastic is pretty low on the strength and high on the weight – certainly nowhere near carbon fiber or even balsa wood.

Ergo, when developing a working model, there’s a good possibility that this Chinese team had to sacrifice some payload/performance capability because they needed to put that weight into designing a plastic structure that was strong enough to withstand the loads imposed on it. One of the primary benefits to carbon is that you can get huge weight savings for the same amount of strength as a traditional aluminum component – one of the reasons for Boeing designing the 787 with 50% of its structure made out of advanced composites (source).

The Chinese team did an amazing job producing this vehicle – something that not only folds for transport, flies fast (24mph max speed), but can also carry a camera and withstand temperatures around 5 to -4 degrees Fahrenheit. However, I wonder what sort of additional capabilities or performance they could have gotten out of it by using a carbon/plastic composite? We may never know, but it’s an interesting thought experiment.

Prior to composite reinforcement for printed parts, anything made on a 3D printer is simply dangerous to trust with any level of mission-critical strength. However, with that reinforcement, the doors are opened to more structural, or mission-critical applications.

At the moment, many aircraft and some drones are fabricated out of complex, multi-part assemblies. The cost and weight savings that can be had by simplifying these designs and merging them into singular parts would be enormous. We are getting to the point where we can start considering the possibility of using composite-reinforced parts on semi-structural components – and not just on unmanned vehicles, too.

However for the moment, the drone industry and other sectors where weight is critical to high-strength applications stand to benefit the most from these lightweight, super-strong parts. Not only can we improve the performance of many vehicle designs, but new vehicles can even be produced at small scale volumes without the need for expensive or complicated jigs and assemblies – or injection molding machines. Think about it – you have to build the wing structure and spars for a fixed wing aircraft out of wood, metal, or pulltruded rod, because pure plastic is too heavy and too weak to do it. But with composite reinforcement, well, there’s definitely more opportunity to be creative.

So the next time you’re considering taking a drone into a harsh environment or demanding use case, consider the benefits that could come from using a printer in your development, and start thinking about what sort of high-performance options are available when you can create complex, superstrong parts in hours instead of weeks. With composite reinforcement, printed parts can be used to make your part both complex and strong.

Markforged Team
September 16, 2015
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